Sink or swim

Rookie Donnie Smith starts in his first MLS appearance, makes a case for more playing time

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Rookie midfielder Donnie Smith kept turning out as the preseason progressed, but he admitted he did not know whether New England coach Jay Heaps would call his number ahead of his debut against Chicago on Saturday night.

Smith played in all six preseason games and started in two of them. He stood out as a natural option to slide into the starting XI with Kelyn Rowe (knee) and Chris Tierney (ankle) hindered by injuries ahead of the season opener.

Heaps displayed his confidence in the former Charlotte winger by picking him for the date against the Fire. When Smith stepped out onto the field, he understood the leap of faith his manager took.

“Teams start different people during the preseason,” Smith told MLSsoccer.com after his debut. “I got out there, looked around and thought this was the real deal. I was a little nervous throughout the game, but it's good to get that first game out of the way. I just look forward to the next one.”

Smith played an integral part in how the match unfolded, according to Heaps. His pace on the left side of midfield created space vertically and extended the field horizontally. When Rowe eventually climbed off the bench to replace Smith after 53 minutes, he benefited from the operating room provided to ultimately decide the match nine minutes later.

“I love his ability to lengthen the game,” Heaps said. “For him, it was his first game. There was a lot on him. It was a sink-or-swim. I thought he did a pretty good job of extending the field for us.”

Although Smith accomplished his primary task, he believes he still has more to give as he attempts to consolidate his place in the squad and push for more playing time as the season progresses.

“I wanted to get at them more 1-v-1,” Smith said. “The ball got stuck under my foot a couple of times. I played backwards too much. But I'm happy with how I played and I know that I can do better.”